It was a fateful decision – and a significant strategic mistake. Battered by the controversy over the remarks of his mentor and pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama delivered a speech designed to switch the national conversation from Wright to race.
It’s easy to understand why. The speech allowed a candidate on the defensive to shift the issue from his “mentor’s” over-the-top rhetoric to the larger issue of America’s race relations. It was intended as an opportunity to regain the high ground, and perhaps even the moral authority so deeply eroded by his embrace of a man given to anti-American tirades. But both the decision to speak on race and the speech itself damaged the Barack Obama “brand.”
For many, the primary appeal of Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” was its success in transcending the politics of race. Since the campaign’s inception, Obama had successfully presented himself as a presidential candidate who happened to be black, rather than as a black presidential candidate. But by initiating yet another national dialogue on race relations, Obama has undermined his message of change and inserted himself into the middle of the most controversial area of American life – to his certain political detriment.
He now must engage in the most delicate kind of balancing act. To the extent that Obama emphasizes the post-racial aspects of his candidacy, he risks alienating his core constituency of African Americans – who may decide that he’s trying to downplay and distance himself from their collective experience. But if he continues to play up black identity issues, he will turn off independents and the blue-collar voters he needs to win, for many of the same reasons that Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson do.
There might have been an upside if Obama’s race speech truly had exemplified his campaign’s promise of a “new kind of politics.” But the speech, hailed as a triumph mostly by those already on the left, offered little in the way of a new perspective on race relations in America. His trademark eloquence was in evidence as he explained to white America the reasons for black anger; his acknowledgement of white resentment was measured and polite – though quickly blamed in part on “talk show hosts and conservative commentators.” So what was so groundbreaking? Who didn’t already know there were racial strains in America, why they exist, and that liberals blame them on conservatives?